New Delhi: A few weeks ago, the traditional Indian joint family household of Vineet Sharma, a fertilizer industry consultant, achieved a long deferred dream. Having ferried themselves on scooters all these years, the Sharmas bought a brand new, silver-gray hatchback, known as the Tata Indica.
Never mind that none of the six adult members of the household knew how to drive. No sooner had the car arrived than Sharma, 34, took it for a spin and knocked over a friend. His brother slammed into a motorcyclist, injuring no one but damaging the bumper.
“We bought it first, and then we thought about driving,” Sharma said.
On Thursday, as Tata Motors Ltd unveiled the world’s cheapest car at the Auto Expo (the biggest industry event for the automobile industry in India) the Rs1 lakh Tata Nano, and auto makers from across the world came to the Capital to peddle wares to a bubbling Indian car market, Sharma began to think about driving.
Way out? A traffic jam during rush hour in old Delhi on Wednesday. As incomes rise and cheap cars proliferate, the drive is far from smooth in the city which adds 650 vehicles to its roads each day.
He enrolled in a weeklong driving course and dived headlong into the madness of the morning commute in a beat-up Maruti 800. Its odometer had long ago stopped working, and it carried on its roof a sign for the driving school.
Sharma wasn’t going very fast and said he was very nervous. He had good reason, for his first real adventure on four wheels revealed how many hurdles still hinder the new Indian romance with the road.
Amid a cacophony of horns on the Ring Road, a blood-red sport utility vehicle (SUV) weaved between cars, passing Sharma within a razor’s edge on the right. A school bus snuggled close up on the left. No one seemed to care about lanes. Cars bounced in and out of crater-sized potholes.
Indians are rushing headlong to get behind the wheel as incomes rise, car loans proliferate and the auto industry churns out low-cost cars to nudge them off their motorcycles. They bought 1.5 million cars last year. By some estimates, India is expected to soar past China this year as the fastest growing car market.
The Capital was aflutter with car mania this week, as the biennial Auto Expo opened on Thursday and auto makers, Indian and foreign, began rolling out the first of 25 new models.
The greatest hype came from Tata Motors, which introduced the Tata Nano as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey played loudly in the background. There were also luxury sedans and SUVs on offer, as well as a variety of small cars, gadgets and car parts.
Not unexpectedly, Indian environmentalists have assailed the car craze, particularly because of the country’s relatively relaxed emission standards and the proliferation of diesel-powered cars; Auto Expo features a pavilion dedicated to diesel.
Even the usually non-confrontational chairman of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra K. Pachauri, has sharply criticized the small car boom, questioning Tata Motors in particular for devoting itself to building cheap cars rather than efficient mass transportation.
In his first driving lesson, Sharma had more immediate worries in mind. Sharing the roads with him was a bicyclist with three cooking-gas cylinders strapped to the back of his bike, a pushcart vendor plying guavas, a cycle rickshaw loaded with a photocopy machine. There were also a great many pedestrians either leaping into traffic in the absence of crosswalks or marching in thick rows on the sides of the road in the absence of sidewalks.
Dinner party chatter here is usually rife with theories on road management. It is said Indians drive as though they’re still on two wheels, or that snaking in and out of lanes is the only way so many cars can survive on the ill-kept roads.
Sharma’s theory was simpler: “We have a knack for breaking laws.”
The city’s top police official in charge of traffic shared that sentiment. He was vexed by all this talk of new low-cost cars.
“My concern is not with cars. My concern is with drivers,” said Suvashish Choudhary, the deputy commissioner of police. “Every new car will bring new drivers who are not trained for good city driving.”
With a population of nearly 16.5 million, the Capital now adds 650 vehicles to its roads each day. At last count, there were 5.4 million vehicles, a more than fivefold rise in 20 years; scooters and motorbikes still outnumber cars 2 to 1.
Choudhary was reminded of the remarkable fact that the sharp increase in the number of cars in New Delhi had not been accompanied by a sharp rise in traffic accidents.
He scoffed, and went on to list his grievances: no one gives way, everyone jostles to be the first to move when the traffic light turns green and a lack of crosswalks prompts pedestrians to frequently jump out into traffic. He called it “a lack of driving culture.”
Pity the walker in the city. Half of all fatal accident victims are pedestrians, according to the police.
“Everyone knows a bit of driving,” Sharma observed. “The problem is following the rules. Everyone is in a hurry.”
New Delhi issued more than 300,000 drivers’ licenses last year, which could be seen as either a feat of bureaucratic efficiency or Indian ingenuity. At one city licensing office this week, the test, which took about a minute, consisted of turning on the ignition and driving in a wide circle.
A professional chauffeur named Ramfali said he had obtained a licence even though he cannot read. Sharma paid about $40 (Rs1,572), or five times the official fee, to an independent broker who fetched him a licence in half an hour.
Extra-loud horns are the new flavour in car accessories, along with a horn that beeps automatically when a car backs up. High beams are also a popular option, and not just for dark country roads.
Car mania has also spawned a new industry in driver training classes. On early mornings, one can see student drivers crawling along the roads and veterans honking madly behind them.
Next in line for a lesson, after Sharma took a two-hour turn at the wheel, came Anita Vashisht, 40, a police station secretary who took her first lesson on the off chance that one day she could afford to buy a car.
As for Sharma, by the end of his first class, he had decided that four wheels, while desirable, were not always practical. His scooter, he pointed out, was cheaper and faster.
©2008/The New York Times
Hari Kumar and Saher Mahmood contributed to this story.